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Yes, Southeast Asian piracy really has spiked

Yes, Southeast Asian piracy really has spiked
Published 21 Aug 2015   Follow @elliotbrennan

Earlier this month, Sam Bateman's post (Is Southeast Asia Really a Piracy Hotspot?) questioned my examination of International Maritime Bureau (IMB) data which indicates a rise in piracy and incidents at sea in Southeast Asia. It was a welcome prompt to further reinforce my arguments that Southeast Asia is a global hotspot for piracy and armed robbery at sea, that the region could face considerable problems related to criminality associated with such incidents, and that maritime cooperation is complicated by maritime disputes with China.

Bateman favours data from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia  (ReCAAP) rather than the IMB data which I cite. Both the ReCAAP and IMB data, which rely on vessels to report incidents, have discrepancies. That alone should prompt us to welcome more data sources. Bateman himself 'relied on' IMB data (and not ReCAAP data) to support his maritime security risk assessment in a recent ISEAS journal article

While all data has its failings (on this, my views are Disraeli-esque), one should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Like the IMB data, ReCAAP data shows year-on-year increases of incidents during the January to June period. While there are certainly problems (as I highlighted in my original piece) in lumping such attacks together, doing so shows the extent of the wider problem across the region. Digging deeper into both sets of data, we see a significant increase in hijackings and siphoning in the first six months of this year. These types of attacks, which ReCAAP terms 'Category 1', are the highest in five years, according to both sets of data. Observed together, and given the growing professionalism of such criminal activity,  we see a deeper picture of the troubles facing the region.  [fold]

As Bateman correctly argues (and I note in my original post), we do indeed need an intelligent separation of attack types. For example, petty theft on an anchored ship is quite different to an armed hijacking. That there has been an increase in the former should be cause for concern. Yet most worrying is that both ReCAAP and IMB data show an increase in the latter type  of serious incidents at sea too. 

Similarly, while I of course agree with Bateman that there are differences between the modus operandi of pirates in Somalia and Southeast Asia, it does not follow that, because they differ in MO, the impact of their actions will also differ. Where piracy and armed robbery at sea proliferates, so too will wider criminality. Ultimately, such an environment better serves criminal (or jihadi) organisations, regardless of whether they are direct recipients of the funds or just operating in a wider (and therefore harder to police) sphere of criminality. 

Bateman's last argument — that China would not use the maritime piracy issue to muddy the territorial disputes in the South China Sea — I find most implausible. Beijing has long demonstrated that it is happy to weather a short-term economic loss (in this case, by way of disrupted trade) in order to support its island construction and territorial expansion. China has also strongly and continually stated its desire to deal with disputes bilaterally. I have seen very little readiness by China to support deep and meaningful cooperation in the maritime sphere so I maintain my argument that deeper maritime cooperation between ASEAN member states against piracy would be unpopular in Beijing. 

These disagreements aside, Bateman's suggestion for enhanced security in the Traffic Separation Scheme through the Singapore Straits, as well as greater security in regional ports and anchorages, are well taken. Such measures would reduce incidents of petty theft, which made up the majority of incidents in the eastbound lane of the TSS. But beyond this, tackling hijacking and siphoning incidents (which the data from both IMB and ReCAAP suggests is needed) will require greater maritime cooperation.  

Photo by Flickr user Philip Hayward.

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